Some talk of Alexander's tomb starts to ring hollow

Robert Fisk finds Cairo in a sceptical mood over certain tomb stones as the city warms to the theme: beware of modern Greeks bearing antiquities
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Alexander began to lose a little of his Greatness in the Marriott Hotel lobby. The tomb, we were informed amid a swirl of distinctly post-Macedonian tourists, might not be the tomb after all. Stone fragments shown to archaeologists flown in from Greece were from the Roman Imperial period - 300 years after Ptolemy I supposedly laid his predecessor to rest in Egypt. Most disappointing of all, the Greeks had failed to identify any eight-pointed Macedonian stars among remains at Siwa oasis. At that, even the tourists began to drift away from the press conference.

Should we have been surprised? Even when Liana Souvaltzi addressed the press on Saturday - Greeks only, for she had no time to talk to Egyptian reporters - there was an air of palpable unease among the Greek diplomats in the Marriott. With eyes glinting,she told the Greek nation: "I have no reservation about whether this is Alexander's tomb," she announced. "But I am speaking to every Greek all over the world. I want every one of you to feel proud, because Greek hands have found this very important monument."

The core of Ms Souvaltzi's political message was swift in arriving. "This is a very difficult time for Greece - therefore I believe that the discovery of the tomb of Alexander the Great will contribute to our good image abroad. We must be proud to be Greeks." At which point, a Greek embassy first secretary shuffled uneasily.

What did this mean? Were FYROM archaeologists - diggers from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - on the trail of Alexander's corpse? Had Ms Souvaltzi beaten them to it? Or was she just pleased that she, and not the Egyptians, possessed the hands which had found the monument? The Cairo press had been a little sceptical about her work, ever since Ms Souvaltzi disclosed that only the appearance of two serpents passing between her feet at the excavation site had persuaded Egyptian workers to help her. The serpents were a sign, she told nonplussed journalists in Siwa last month.

Sitting next to Ms Souvaltzi was her husband, who had translated the stone fragments which she had uncovered at Siwa; there were special thanks to him for his help. It seemed as if history were repeating itself. More than a century ago, Schliemann claimed he had gazed upon the face of Agamemnon and then dressed his wife up in the treasures of Troy. Now Ms Souvaltzi claimed her hands had discovered the tomb of Alexander and gave her husband credit for its identity. According to his translation of one fragment, Ptolemy himself, no less, stated that he carried the corpse of the god-king and master of the known world to Siwa, adding that "it was I who was caring about his secrets, and who was carrying out his wishes".

But the real wishes of Alexander looked ever more secretive at the weekend. Even before they set off to Siwa to survey Ms Souvaltzi's finds, the Greek expedition, led by the Director of Antiquities in Athens, Yannis Tzedakis, noted unhappily that the discoverer would not be travelling with them; she would be too busy talking to antiquities-department officials in Cairo. Ms Souvaltzi, he said, had worked on the Egyptian collection at the Athens Museum and had published a paper on the tomb of Alexander in Cairo three years ago. She says she is funded by her husband and had told Dr Tzedakis that she had found two tablets and part of a third.

On Sunday night Dr Tzedakis and his men returned from Siwa with a brief handwritten statement that made it clear the fragments of stone were Roman rather than Hellenistic and that the Greeks had not seen the eight-pointed Macedonian star which they had hoped to observe. Nor did the fragments make any reference to "poison" - the supposed manner of Alexander's death in 323BC - as press reports had earlier suggested. Although their visit had not been long enough to exhaust the theories about Alexander, Dr Tzedakis said, "the fragments are not Hellenistic. They have nothing to do with the period of Ptolemy I. The inscriptions are very well dated to be post-Augustine, after AD30. There is no Macedonian style to the complex."

The Greek Culture Minister, Thanos Mikroutsikos, confirmed yesterday that fragments presented to an official Greek delegation in Egypt "in no way" proved that the tomb was that of Alexander.